Palestinian officials hesitant on Arafat autopsy

Associated Press
FILE - In this Nov. 7, 2007 file photo members of a Palestinian honor guard stand next to the tombstone, backdropped by a huge poster, which marks the grave of late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, inside Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas' headquarters in the West Bank city of Ramallah. Abbas has given his permission for the exhumation of the remains of his predecessor, Yasser Arafat, a top aide said Monday, July 9, 2012, days after a Swiss institute reported finding elevated traces of a radioactive substance on the late leader's belongings. (AP Photo/Muhammed Muheisen, File)
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RAMALLAH, West Bank (AP) — In an apparent flip-flop, Palestinian investigators looking into Yasser Arafat's death said Thursday they want to review reports from a Swiss lab before deciding whether to exhume the leader's remains.

Earlier this week, a senior West Bank official said a final decision was made to examine Arafat's bones.

That development followed an announcement by Switzerland's Institute of Radiation Physics, which said it found unexplained, elevated traces of a radioactive agent, polonium-210, on clothing and personal items said to have been used by Arafat before his Nov. 11, 2004 death at a French military hospital.

The lab said the results were inconclusive and that Arafat's remains would have to be tested to learn more.

Since Arafat's death, several senior Palestinian officials have alleged that Israel poisoned the Palestinian leader, a charge Israel vehemently denied.

Testing Arafat's bones could offer the last chance to get to the bottom of Palestinian claims that their leader was poisoned, though some experts cautioned it may already be too late for conclusive answers.

Earlier this week, a top Palestinian official, Saeb Erekat, said President Mahmoud Abbas decided to exhume the body and would invite a team from the Swiss lab to come to the West Bank to perform the tests.

In an apparent reversal, members of a Palestinian committee set up to investigate Arafat's death suggested Thursday the final word has not been spoken on whether to dig up the remains.

In an attempt at transparency, the committee also published 116 pages of medical treatment reports chronicling Arafat's final month.

Treatment notes by Arab doctors summoned to his government compound in Ramallah show that he fell ill on Oct. 11, 2004, when he vomited two hours after supper. Doctors suspected at the time that he suffered from viral gastroenteritis.

His condition deteriorated over the next 18 days, as he continued to vomit and complain of diarrhea. He received a transfusion of blood platelets, and on Oct. 29, 2004 was flown to France, where he died nearly two weeks later.

French doctors said he died of a massive stroke and suffered from a blood condition known as disseminated intravascular coagulation, or DIC.

The records were inconclusive about what brought about the DIC, which has numerous possible causes, including infections and liver disease.

Arafat's remains are housed in a mausoleum in Abbas' walled government compound in the West Bank city of Ramallah.

Justice Minister Ali Mohanna, a member of the committee, told a news conference Thursday that Palestinian officials want to review the Swiss lab report on the polonium traces. After such a review, "we will decide what testing we need to do," he said.

Nasser al-Kidwa, a nephew of Arafat and custodian of the late leader's legacy, has contacted the lab in hope of obtaining the full test records, said Mohanna.

He offered no explanation for the apparent U-turn. An autopsy could offend cultural sensibilities of conservative Palestinians, but at the same time the Palestinian leadership is under domestic pressure to do everything necessary to investigate the latest findings.

Arafat's widow, Suha, last week demanded that her husband's grave be reopened. Mrs. Arafat has cooperated closely with the Arab satellite TV channel Al-Jazeera, giving the broadcaster some of her husband's belongings and his medical file. The Swiss lab reports were first published by Al-Jazeera after a nine-month investigation.

On Thursday, one of Arafat's physicians, Dr. Abdullah Bashir, reiterated the claim that Arafat was poisoned, without specifically blaming Israel. Bashir said poison experts contacted by the committee agreed with that assumption, but he did not identify the experts or explain how they reached that conclusion.

Arafat had spent the last three years of his life under Israeli siege at his Ramallah compound, now used by Abbas.

Bashir said the French medical records were incomplete.

"We have sent questions and received answers from the French hospital, and we consider the French report in regards to (possible) poisons to be weak," he said.

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